Crystal Dynamics' first go at the Tomb Raider license must have been terrifying. Such an enormously famous series in the hands of Core, so spectacularly falling to pieces after Angel Of Darkness, Tomb Raider was at once one of the most famous franchises in the world and one of the most despised. Lara overkill combined with the unmitigated disaster of its sixth game meant that it was something of a poisoned chalice that was handed to the Californian developers, and the result is a fascinating combination of fervent loyalty to the series mixed in with some interesting new ideas.
It wasn't until Crystal Dynamics' third game, Underworld, that it'd really make the series its own (although that's a phrase that I think will look silly when the new Tomb Raider is released). But with Legend, as much as it reproduced the style of puzzles and combat almost zealously, it also made the extraordinary decision to take Lara out of isolation and surround her by friends.
From the very start, and without any rational introduction or establishment, there are people in your ear. First there's Alister: he's British, a worrywart, and he offers historical advice for Lara as she explores. He's accompanied by Zip, who was obviously the inspiration for this idea, having previously existed for a level in the underrated Tomb Raider: Chronicles, guiding Lara through some hacking. He's your techspert, a resident source of sarcasm and he annoys Alister greatly.
I can see why the addition of these two would upset some. Lara had, apart from that brief sequence in Chronicles, done things on her own. She was very much isolated when on missions. But here there was frequent banter, changing the atmosphere significantly, and I'd argue mostly very successfully.
Hearing Keeley Hawes respond to Alister's panicked question, "Are we going to crash?" with, "Not unless it's absolutely necessary," is a real pleasure. And popping the majesty of the moment when you discover the giant building behind the waterfall with Zip chipping in, "Oooh! That's where we put the temple!" offers a smile where most games would go po-faced.
And it's exquisitely British, too. When realising that the clues (oh yes "the plot" well, Lara's friend Amanda didn't die when she thought she did, and there's this sword in bits, and something about Lara's mum, and so on) are taking them from their exotic worldwide locations to, well, Cornwall, Lara replies, "As in, take the M5 to the A30, Cornwall?"
And this is never bettered than when in Cornwall, at the decaying King Arthur museum, with the displays still offering their narrated scenes when you press the buttons. Each is riddled with mistakes driving Alister to distraction, offering many great lines from Zip and Lara as they torture him further.
At the same time it's so religiously faithful to the classic Raiders, as if Crystal Dynamics felt it wasn't allowed to mess with some things. So Lara still jumps from block to grip, pole to swinging rope, and while her feet are set free of the gridded floors that always felt so silly, this is still a world exactly designed to match her precise abilities. And it's still a world filled with endangered species for Lara to slaughter.
And yet some of it acts as a commentary. An incredibly well executed sequence early on has you walk through a very typical Tomb Raider tomb, full of corridors of spikes, blades and traps - but they're all impotently harmless. Age has worn them, meaning treading on pressure plates only coughs out a puff of dust, maybe accompanied by a spear falling limply to the floor. It says something about how dated it all feels now, as well as making the statement that Crystal Dynamics was going to take the series somewhere more interesting.
But that would all come much later. In the end Legend does feature trap-filled corridors themselves, albeit mostly ones that rely on acrobatics rather than boring timing. But it is, for the most part, extremely traditional. And one of those traditions, sadly, is extremely ill-conceived boss fights.
Until the final boss none is particularly difficult, but each is especially stupidly conceived. Poor flagging of what you're supposed to be doing to harm the enemy means your only option is trial and error, which is intrinsically bad design. The general combat is pretty poor, human and animal enemies somehow requiring dozens and dozens of bullets before they're slowed down, confused by a jumbled targeting system that barely works. And these flaws shine like beacons when encountering the bosses.
It's infuriating not because the player is failing, but because the game is failing. The game's final boss, an idiotic giant purple ghost monster, has the ability to impossibly dodge my attacks while the game refuses to acknowledge my dodging his. It decides you've been hit before you have, and any well-timed evasive manoeuvres are just ignored. This is made doubly worse by its being so spitefully stupid as to allow the enemy to hit you multiple times before it will give you your controls back to move out of the way. It's unforgivably stupid. This combined with the awful targeting means you flail around stupidly, easily winning if the game lets you, but more often failing because it arbitrarily doesn't.
The good news is that after repeating the same bloody ridiculous mistakes in Anniversary, Crystal Dynamics did something extraordinary and listened to the critics, completely ditching boss fights altogether in the closing chapter of the trilogy, Underworld. But sadly the perils of retrospecting are that the past remains unchanged, and Legend is still just as cock-damned frustrating as it ever was.
An amazing score, combined with what were remarkable graphics (I feel a little embarrassed that I was once so gobsmacked by the waterfall scenery that now looks just so ordinary), and for the most part lovely platforming, demonstrates why Crystal Dynamics is such an interesting team. Here's hoping its learned not to make the same mistakes again in the forthcoming reboot.